‘Many Hands, Many Ideas, Many Experiments’ — Learning note from DO FEST 2019

Jo Orchard-Webb
Oct 7, 2019 · 11 min read
DO FEST Dudley 2019 was a 3 day festival of 23 street experiment premised upon the belief that nurturing a kinder, more connected and more creative High Street will require ‘Many Hands, Many Ideas, Many Experiments’.

At CoLab Dudley we do and learn together.

The doing and the learning are symbiotic, collective and ongoing. That means lots of doers, lab team and creatives observing, listening, feeling and reflecting on the data treasure they find while designing and doing experiments.

The magic of learning and doing together is the richness of many perspectives openly shared and assumptions challenged.

This shared learning is fertile ground for new ideas, designs, flows of talents and resources and collaborations for the next chapter of experiments. It is also a way to build depth as a collective in our connections and shared knowledge about the why, how, so what and what next of the change we seek.

The change we seek is a kinder, more connected and more creative High Street.

It is a High Street of everyday conviviality where people have joyful, creative interactions and connections with the spaces and strangers around them. On that High Street they are part of a growing culture of sharing, creativity and curiosity. It is a place where the talents and resources around/ within all of us are repurposed and recycled in the name of that kinder, more connected and more creative place. We dive into the why of re-imagining of the High Street here. And you can read more about some of the street experiments here.

In this post we share the latest treasure chest of learning from:

Before we outline the 5 key design lessons from these street experiments it is important to reflect that this learning and doing builds on years of testing and learning together. For instance, in 2018 we shared our learning as lab team, doers and encouragers about the important role in this work of:

  • our sense of belonging to Dudley;
  • the good stuff that happens when we create spaces together;
  • and the wealth of resources and talents that doing and making together reveals

Equally, we know this work does not exist or evolve in a vacuum. We are mindful that we are part of a complex web of relationships and flows of resources. To try to work best in this complexity we build on the collective’s shared learning, we design and test together in the open, and we nurture relationships (based on our principles) across the CoLab Dudley Collective of doers and creatives, but also at the edges of our network — mindful this is fertile ground for new ideas, critical engagement, connections and creativity.

But what does this approach to change mean in practice?

Our doing and learning so far has told us that the change we seek will be collective and people led (Many hands); will involve a diversity and plurality of perspectives (Many ideas); will need to embrace curiosity and be supported to test many prototypes — some of which will work wonderfully as they are, some will need refining and amplifying, some will be one offs that don’t work but we will learn from them (Many experiments).

This approach is linked to our many layered take on scaling that includes scaling deep (transforming socio-cultural values); scree scaling (many small inter-connected experiments within the ecosystem incrementally and cumulatively shifting norms and expectations); both of these are made more likely to happen by scaling the initial conditions needed for change (impacting the soft infrastructure by changing access to capital, data, talents, knowledge and networks). We know that by focussing on these wider elements of scaling we will move the dial of change towards scaling out which means impacting a greater number of people. More on our scaling here.

So let’s look at the 5 key things we learnt together through these experiments illustrated and woven together here by Vanessa

We have added a scaling design note after each lesson to reflect how they might inform our designs and doing for future experiments on the High Street.

1. Abundance not scarcity

We were so heartened by the depth of abundance thinking and practice in our growing network witnessed during these experiments. The generosity, care and sharing of resources, ideas, knowledge and time in our network is emboldening (i.e. building our collective creative confidence), amplifying (i.e. growing awareness of social action/ neighbourhood consciousness) and building resilience (i.e. increased adaptability and depth of resources across the network). Do Fest highlighted a depth and quality of relationships in the network and also a growing diversity of membership bringing a range of new perspectives to the work.

Care for, appreciation of, and attention to the flows and connections within our network is key to our work as a platform (remember the bit about scaling for initial conditions above). In preparation, during and post the festival we have achieved this through:

  • convening Do Fest Friends (a Whats App group for doers ad creative and encouragers in the network who helped support and deliver the festival);
  • through inviting the collective of makers and creatives to connect & design sessions;
  • through inviting Fellow Travellers as visiting detectorists;
  • and through the openness to fertile edges with other civic bodies keen to be cheerleaders.

As a result we witnessed a strengthening of the network which led to:

  • greater flows of resources and talents to the festival and to new opportunities;
  • affirmation & emotional labour shared;
  • growing connections between us all & so active network weaving & improving collective resilience;
  • intentional open learning flows between projects (for example we convened an open learning session with Philippa from StreetSpace and hosted festival detectorism session at gather & create dinners)

Paint Dudley & Do Fest was created in collaboration with a growing collective convening with the purpose of animating a more creative, kinder and connected High St. By resisting scarcity through the street signs & open to all art there was a bold statement of hope and of what is possible to a people often surrounded by a hostile High Street landscape. By animating civic pride through inspiring Black Country phrases and big bold colours, there is a desire to overcome or at the very least disrupt a toxic civic cocktail of cynicism, fear, perception of low worth, and apathy that feeds a cultural deficit.

Scaling initial conditions design note: The learning has taught us that the socially engaged practice of the collective requires trust, empathy, generosity & an open collaborative approach to cultural production & consumption on the High St. This is enabled through active network weaving, convening with purpose (e.g.for learning, connections, co-design, creating), and thoughtful unlocking of talents.

2. Power of the out of place

Unconventional and visible creativity actively disrupted usual High St isolating consumer norms to invite different perspectives, alternative civic behaviours and ultimately to re-imagine the High Street.

These experiments and creative experiences extended an invitation to experience space at a different pace and at a different scale, and in this way reveal unexpected or hidden beauty, encouraged curiosity, and invited connections. These experiments reminded us of what and who we miss when we are sealed in our cars, or moving quickly from shop to bank to car without pausing & paying attention.

From sitting relaxing on the Parklet, to standing chatting to artists creating street art on boarded up shops, to groups of strangers ambling together along the High street paying attention to tiny detail on a photowalk, to painting & making in the market stalls, to mapping the High Street at a musical picnic, to spraying chalk signs on the pavement … these experiments all acted as an invitation to local people to think and look differently about Dudley High St, the way they move around it, how they behave on the High St, how they imagine the High Street.

This out of place-ness created a satirical challenge to the pervasive isolating and cynical consumer norms of the High Street. From the assumption by passers by that the street art indicated a new private retailer moving in, or comments on social media that this was council tax funded (neither is true this was people led action); to the occupation of the market stalls for making and the resulting queries about cost of things being made (there was no cost they were freely given); through to the youth brand provocations in the visual design interacting with the Black Country phrases used on a boarded up long abandoned old McDonalds.

Scaling deep design note: Intentionally designed unconventional creative experiences introduce into a culture breathing room for alternative perspectives, scales, contexts, timescales and pace with which to be in and experience the High Street.

3. Beauty is a Human Right

Paint Dudley and Do Fest activity was a playful but bold disruption of a narrative of decay and feelings of abandonment of this part of Dudley High Street. It was a defiant act of cultural nourishment in response to the cultural underinvestment in a town that has closed the public art gallery and other creative spaces.

Both these people led creative interventions were intentionally free, intentionally hosted in open public space (High Street/ Market Stall) or partly in a social entreprise community cafe on the High St. The invitation to experiment, produce & consume art was open to all, free to take part and actively undermined traditional cultural consumption norms around closed institutions, cost of entry, and who is invited to or feels they have permission to consume and produce the art.

This is not an exclusive intervention. It is mindful of the co-opting of art/creatives in the interests of developer led gentrification. Instead, it is grounded in the place, in the Black Country cultural identity, and it purposefully weaves open access for local people to learning creative production skills (e.g. photography, sign-writing, street art, wire art) and the everyday chance to consume that art (via art exhibitions & art installations).

Scaling deep design note: These experiments reminded us that who gets to make or create art, and who gets to consume it is a social justice issue. It impacts our identity, our agency, our view of the world and worlds’ view of us/ where we are from.

4. Inspiration from and care for nature

Taking inspiration from nature and caring for our planet has been more implicit in our work historically and largely manifest in recycling, re-purposing of broken items and growing for all. At Do Fest this inspiration and care was much more urgently focussed upon:

  • environmentally friendly behaviours (going plastic free),
  • nature inspired creativity and wellbeing,
  • seeing nature as necessary in our re-imagining of the High Street

For example, Do Fest hosted two different Zero Waste conversations — both really popular -and led to the sharing of contact details amongst like-minded social/environmental entrepreneurs; the sharing of knowledge and stories online & offline about how to start your plastic free journey.

Nature inspired creativity and wellbeing was apparent in the designing and joy in creating the picnic bag for life making session. Meanwhile gentle connections with strangers and gift making for friends was evident as doers made simple birdfeeders from pine cones, or wire creations inspired by pigeons, and rocks painted and inviting further connections with local natural spots. Then there was the curiosity and debate triggered by the Parklet. Quite literally a mini-park in a parking space shining a light on the scale of real estate given to cars on the High Street, and the contrasting social richness of conversations parks (even little ones!) invite. We observed this again at the musical picnic as doers and creatives sat under the canopy of a beautiful tree and shared nature based ideas in the High St mapping including dreams of rooftop allotments, linear parks, wildflower meadows, nature as the backdrop for music and theatre on the High Street.

Throughout all these experiments we witnessed the enthused and supportive conversations amongst doers about projects, actions and enterprises they want to develop around this issue..

Scaling deep design note: Is this lesson linked to our expanded sense of US and our collective health. Does this valuing of nature help us move away from more individualistic norms and makes us consider a wider community — neighbours, town, even planet? In terms of scree scaling — The energy around our inspiration from and care for the environment was explicit in the learning and so this focus will feature more prominently in our future experiments and we will support the connections and flows between them.

5. Low Fi and DIO (Do It Ourselves) Making & Doing

Do Fest and Paint Dudley once again showed us how low fi, easy to take part, doing/ making together brings joy, creative confidence and connections.

We know from all the work so far that low fi / DIO (Do It Ourselves) creativity allows connections and support networks to grow through doing together, sharing knowledge, talents & stories with like-minded people (read about the example of crafternoon here).

The festival context created reasons for interaction and flows of ideas, talents, time and resources across the many Do Fest and Paint Dudley activities. This context focussed energy and nurtured connections across a collective of creatives and doers passionate about a kinder, more creative and connected High Street.

Scree scaling and scaling initial conditions design note: This simple yet transformative common purpose in addition to being extended an explicit invitation to explore & experiment together eroded cynicism, fear, need for permission or a sense of being alone in this work. Acting together — as a collective to bring about DIO making and doing is powerful in terms of legitimising many small ideas and so impacting norms and expectations of life on Dudley High Street.

P.S.

Additional scree scaling and scaling deep design note: While each lesson raises questions and design challenges they also act in concert. So for example we know that nature is often seen as out of place on the high street — the parklet is a classic example — so how might we design experiments with both inspiration from nature and the power of out of place working for combined effect upon our experience of the High Street and the way we behave there?

CoLab Dudley

Observations, interactions and reflections from a social lab on Dudley High Street